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Avant Museology Identity

November 20–21, 2016

Avant Museology is a a two-day symposium exploring the practices and sociopolitical implications of contemporary museology.

Avant Museology is a two-day symposium copresented by the Walker Art Center, e-flux, and the University of Minnesota Press.

Taking its cue from the recently published book Avant-Garde Museology, the symposium will address the memory machine of the contemporary museum vis-à-vis its relationship to the contemporary artistic practices, sociopolitical contexts, and theoretical legacies that shape and animate it. Where the museum may have once been a mere container for objects and ephemera, the mutability of the contemporary museum has facilitated the apparently seamless absorption of its own complex histories, paradoxical politics, and socioeconomic functions and ideas. It begs the question: can contemporary museology be invested with the energy of the visionary and political projects contained in the works that it circulates and remembers?

The museum of contemporary art might very well be the most advanced recording device ever invented in the history of humankind. It is a place for the storage of historical grievances and the memory of forgotten artistic experiments, social projects, or errant futures. But in late 19th- and early 20th-century Russia, this recording device was undertaken by a number of artists and thinkers as a site for experimentation. Edited by Arseny Zhilyaev, Avant-Garde Museology documents the progressivism of the period, with texts by Alexander Bogdanov, Nikolai Fedorov, Kazimir Malevich, Andrey Platonov, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and many others—several of which are translated into English for the first time. At the center of much of this thought and production is a shared belief in the capacity of art, museums, and public exhibitions to produce an entirely new subject: a better, more evolved human being. And yet, though the early decades of 20th-century Russia have been firmly registered in today’s art history as a time of radical social and artistic change, the uncompromising and often absurd ideas in Avant-Garde Museology appear alien to a contemporary art history that explains suprematism and constructivism in terms of formal abstraction. In fact, these works were part of a far larger project to absolutely instrumentalize art and its rational capacities and apply its forms and spaces to a project of uncompromising progressivism—a total transformation of life by all possible means, whether by designing architecture for life in outer space, developing artistic technology for the resurrection of the dead, or evolving new sensory organs for our bodies.

Today, it is hard to deny the similarity between the bourgeois museum and the contemporary liberal dogmas of open-ended contemplation and abstract self-realization that guide curatorial and museum culture since the dismantling of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. As such, this symposium will launch a further investigation into the militant inclusiveness and delirious pragmatism of the early avant-gardes, shedding light on the social and artistic decisions of a critical period of left-wing politics as well as the ideology of contemporary museological culture more broadly. An explicit question suddenly emerges: under a regime in which social experiments and upheavals become abstract formal gestures, what has the political application of historical memory become?

Perhaps the museum of contemporary art already serves this purpose. Consider what Nikolai Fedorov wrote in 1880s: that the ultimate function of the museum is to unify progressives and conservatives, vitality and death: “And our age in no way dares to imagine that progress itself would ever become the achievement of history, and this grave, this museum, becomes the reconstruction of all of progress’s victims at the time when struggle will be supplanted by accord, and unity in the purpose of reconstruction, only in which parties of progressives and conservatives can be reconciled—parties that have been warring since the beginning of history.”

Avant Museology will coincide with the opening of Question the Wall Itself (November 20, 2016–May 21, 2017), an exhibition curated by Walker Art Center Artistic Director Fionn Meade with Jordan Carter, featuring the work of Jonathas de Andrade, Uri Aran, Nina Beier, Marcel Broodthaers, Tom Burr, Alejandro Cesarco, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Theaster Gates, Ull Hohn, Janette Laverrière/Nairy Baghramian, Louise Lawler, Nick Mauss, Park McArthur, Lucy McKenzie, Shahryar Nashat, Walid Raad, Seth Siegelaub, Paul Sietsema, Florine Stettheimer, Rosemarie Trockel, Danh Vo, Cerith Wyn Evans, and Akram Zaatari. Question the Wall Itself runs November 20, 2016–May 21, 2017.

Please contact curatorial assistant Misa Jeffereis for more information: misa.jeffereis@walkerart.org.